The Reading Teacher by Emily Rozmus
She has been the greatest influence in my life. She was wise, kind, embarrassing, emotional, encouraging, disappointing, and sometimes aloof. She told me I could do anything, and that it was okay to have my own thoughts. She told me to get the gum out of my mouth when I talked in front of a crowd. She told me not to talk so much. She told me to stand up straight. She asked if I was really going to wear that. She told me and my sisters we were always the most attractive women at the party. She didn’t cuddle, and she didn’t often say I love you. She made me think for myself, and she pushed me out of the nest when I thought I wasn’t ready. She reminded us that gravel can throw you if you drive too fast. She told me I was the only person responsible for my happiness. She taught me what hope was. She showed me what it meant to love learning, poetry, words, and books, but she never told me what I should read. She let me decide what I would choose to love. I owe everything I am to my mother, but she let me decide who that person would be.
Today, I read voraciously and without thought, as if the next book in the pile is my next breath. Books then are the oxygen to my breathing. I can remember specifically when I knew I wanted to read. I frequented the library at an early age, and Nancy Drew called to me. The weight of those books, and the words on the pages were so very appealing. I couldn’t read paragraphs yet, and had struggled to get through the book every first grader received at the end of the school year. But my older sister read, and my mother read. I too, would read.
I don’t have many early memories of my mother reading to us as children. We always had books in the house, and went to the library weekly. She would read books to us at bedtime, and I remember especially one called Automobiles for Mice, a discarded library book that my sisters, brother and I requested over and over. Mom would sigh a parent’s weary sigh as she read it again. She gave us the choice, and we gladly took it, aware of our mother’s displeasure but more concerned with our favorite book.
She didn’t tell me what to read. She might offer suggestions. Mom had been an English teacher before she became our mom, and, as an elementary student, I often had my mother as a substitute teacher in my school. In the school library, she would show me the Betsy and Tacy books by Lovelace and tell me that she had liked them a lot when she was my age. I read some; but she never made me. We received books for Christmas that she thought we would like. One year, it was John Bellairs’ House with a Clock in its Walls. I was not surprised that I liked it and read the rest of the series.
In my early teens, I discovered historical romance books – adult ones. The romance and pretty sex in the books captivated me. Mom asked me once about them. Was the sex explicit? I assured her it was not, and she was satisfied with that. She did not tell me then what to read, and though I knew she wanted more for me, she never pushed me to read Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, or Harper Lee. I did that on my own, trying and tasting different books as they came into my line of vision, like pies on a revolving stand. I could decide what I wanted, and I could be responsible for my choices.
I remember as a college student, checking out a Susan Howatch book from the library. Mom read her books frequently. She was somewhat impressed that I had chosen the book, and made a comment, very nonchalant, maybe even as she unloaded the groceries. You’re going to read Howatch? Simple words, but her eyes and her tone told me this was good, but maybe harder. I didn’t finish the book. Something in it disturbed me, some theme made life seem too real. I wasn’t ready for that then.
When I had my first child, I was too tired, too enthralled with baby things to read. Finally one day, after a trip to the library (the first real outing for my infant son was to the library) I lay down and began to read a book. I read the whole thing while my baby slept. I found reading had a new meaning in my life, that books were the window to a world outside motherhood. As a mother, I knew that this was one thing I did just for me and was my own. As a mother, I had new perspective on my own childhood and on my mother’s actions and motivations. She was always busy, frequently tired, usually quick to anger when we were children. I knew now how the passion of motherhood can overwhelm and engulf. I knew now there had to be one thing that was for me, decided by me. Reading was that one thing. I suspect it was my mother’s as well.
My mother is 72. She has dementia. It is all too easy to say she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, but I have learned that there is no way to diagnose Alzheimer’s until after death when an autopsy reveals the pitted and shrunken brain of a true victim of the disease. The first thing she lost was reading. It hurts me to think this, to type the words. The last book she read was The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. We sat at the kitchen table, the site of many epic conversations and verbal reveals over the past 35 years. She had liked it and recommended it. As an adult, I knew I could trust my mother’s choices in books. It was okay for me to like what she liked. I have never been able to let myself read this book; it feels like a loss to me.
In the early stages, when my sisters and brother and I thought depression and grief over my father’s death made her forgetful, moody, mean, she couldn’t focus enough to read. It was easy to make excuses then. It is easy to tell yourself that what you fear is real can in no way be real. The thing you fear only happens to people in books, in the movies. She was afraid, too. The one thing she could read was poetry. As the disease progressed, she became more confused, and thought she had written Emily Dickinson’s The Bustle in a House. She copied it down on the yellow legal pad where we wrote reminders and lists of things to do. Even through the fog, the power of words was a faint light for her, a beacon to bring her home.
Like the lines of the poems my mother could once recite, her influence has not been forgotten, and the lessons she taught me are clear as the sunny day outside my window. Now, when I visit her, she cannot remember my name, but she knows who I am. I am the person my mother let me choose to be, I am a mother, a teacher, a librarian. When I sit with her and hold her hand – that present and warm part of her – I know her physical form is just a vessel, much as books are. What lasts in life is often not tangible . I carry with me what she gave me by allowing me to decide: empowerment, strength, endurance. “I’ll see you later,” I tell her when I leave. I stop by the library on the way home, and the books stretch out before me,vast and welcoming. The possibilities are exciting; I am enthralled with the act of choosing. “I’ll see you later,” I said, and as I choose the books I want to read, I feel her warmth with me, never pushing,only supporting me down aisles of shelves, and out the door into the day.
Emily Rozmus was an English teacher and school librarian for 20 years, before she chose a new career. For the past six months, she has been an Integration Librarian for INFOhio, Ohio’s PreK-12 online Library. She enjoys spending time with her husband, three children and cats, as well as reading whatever she wants. You can follow her on Twitter @rozmuse or read her blog museofreading.blogspot.com.